Agha Waqar Ahmad deserves a medal from the people of Pakistan for his great service to the nation. In a few short days, he has exposed just how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion. No practical joker could have demonstrated more dramatically the true nature of our country’s political leaders, popular TV anchors and famed scientists.
At first, it sounded like a joke: a self-styled engineer, trained in Khairpur’s polytechnic institute, claims to have invented a ‘water kit’ enabling any car to run on water alone. It didn’t matter that the rest of world couldn’t extract energy from water; he had done it. He promised a new Pakistan with limitless energy, no need for petrol or gas, and no more loadshedding. For an energy starved nation, it is a vision of paradise.
Agha Waqar Ahmad is now a national celebrity thanks to Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah. Federal ministers Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani and Qamar Zaman Kaira have added their commendations. President Asif Ali Zardari has expressed his delight. The cabinet has met three times to discuss the water vehicle, and a fourth meeting is scheduled. Reports suggest millions may be spent on the ‘water fuel kit project’.
The media has rushed in to celebrate the new national hero. For TV anchor Talat Husain, thanks to Agha Waqar Ahmad’s invention, Pakistan’s image can go from a country ravaged by terrorism to one of boundless possibilities. Anchor Hamid Mir and Senator Parvaiz Rasheed drove around Islamabad sitting next to the inventor, wondering how to protect the man’s life from Western oil companies. Anchor Arshad Sharif was euphoric about the $14 billion Pakistan would save on oil imports.
Pakistan’s most celebrated scientists were not far behind.
Asked by Anchor Sharif whether a car could run only on water, nuclear hero Dr Samar Mubarakmand replied without hesitation: “jee haan, bilkul ho sakta hai” (yes, absolutely possible).
For his part, Hamid Mir asked Dr AQ Khan if there was any chance of this being a fraud. The response was clear: “Main nay apnay level per investigate kiya hai aur koi fraud waraud nahi kiya hai” (I have investigated the matter and there is no fraud involved).
The head of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr Shaukat Parvaiz, went further: “hum nay bhi iss pay kam karaya tha” (we had some work done on this too).
So, what is the problem?
It’s that the laws of physics, in particular a fundamental scientific principle known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, impose inviolable constraints. Every machine constructed anywhere uses the Second Law. This is something that I learned in my first year as a student at MIT and have taught for 40 years. No serious scientist would dream of challenging the Second Law.
Agha Waqar Ahmad’s ‘water kit’, if one believes science to be right, simply cannot work. What the inventor, the ministers, the anchors and scientists claim on TV is wrong.
Just a few weeks ago, the discovery of a new particle was celebrated by physicists the world over. The properties of this new particle are being studied and many expect it to be the Higgs boson predicted by the Salam-Weinberg Electroweak theory. If confirmed as the Higgs Boson, it provides for the completion of the standard model of particle physics. The standard model is the culmination of 100 years of particle physics, which began with the discovery of the electron in 1897. This theory predicts with extreme precision — in some cases one part in 100 billion — the properties and interactions of all the fundamental particles and is one of the two foundation stones of modern theoretical physics, the other being Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Once again, our understanding of the basic laws of physics was confirmed by the discovery at the Large Hadron Collider(LHC), an experiment 10 years in the making.
The basic principles on which entire physics rests, include the laws of thermodynamics and the law of conservation of energy. The discovery of new particles in accelerators, such as the LHC, rests on the premise that the conservation laws of energy and momentum hold and this has been confirmed to extreme precision.
Thus, it would be utterly impossible to see a violation of this law in everyday events or even at an atomic scale. However, this is exactly what is being claimed by Agha Waqar Ahmad.
The basic idea behind the Khairpur device is not new and has been shown not to work. Here is what Agha Waqar is proposing: electrical energy, from the battery, electrolyses water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen; the hydrogen is then burned in the engine thus recombining with oxygen to produce water, while producing heat and mechanical energy to run the car. Part of this mechanical energy is used to run the alternator to charge the battery. To put it simply, the battery runs the car and charges itself. This is absurd and impossible!
The absurdity of the Khairpur device can be understood by drawing an analogy with another similar mechanism. Consider the following argument. Electricity can be used to run a car and electricity can be produced by using a wind turbine. Given these two facts does it make sense to install a wind turbine on the roof of an electric car? The flow of air due to car cruising at some speed rotates the turbine and turbine provides electricity, which allows the car to keep on cruising. Or how about an electric pump, which pumps water into a reservoir at a certain height so that when water flows down from the reservoir, it rotates a turbine, which generates electricity for the pump? What is being proposed by Agha Waqar is as absurd as the contraptions mentioned in the above thought experiments. Such hypothetical devices are known as perpetual motion machines and their existence violates basic laws of physics.
Experiments sometime do contradict prevailing theoretical models. One famous example of this is the experiment determining the energy emitted, at a certain wavelength, by a black body. A black body is an object that absorbs all light that falls on it and hence appears black; it is also a perfect emitter. The results of this experiment were not in agreement with theoretical understanding of the black body radiation at that time. The reconciliation of observation and theory marked the beginning of quantum theory. However, what needs to be understood is that the new theory encompasses the old one and extends it. It is not usually the case that the old theory turns out to be completely wrong. For example, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation works very well if we would like to calculate the trajectory of, say, a cricket ball. But we know that Newton’s theory is not correct, the correct theory being Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We can still use Newton’s theory since the deviations from it are extremely tiny and become significant only when the gravity is strong such as near a black hole or when we want extreme precision such as for global positioning system.
The utter lack of scepticism regarding such claims is sad not only because it shows poor understanding of basic science by people apparently running ‘scientific’ institutions and those, who have been eulogised by folklore in this country for ‘their achievements’, but also shows how desperate we are to believe that Pakistanis can also do something extraordinary. The desperation to believe in ourselves as a nation possibly stems from an utter failure in sciences, while scientific and technological progress by others keeps on gathering pace and the gulf grows ever wider, likely to be unbridgeable by now.
Scientific frauds are not rare and several have been able to carry on for a long time because of their sophisticated nature, but the way an ordinary engineer has been able to do it on national TV for several weeks, with scientific institutions such as the PCSIR backing him, is mindboggling. If nothing else, it demonstrates the incompetence of people running these institutions.
The PCSIR chairman appeared in two different programmes (“Kyun” and “Capital Talk”) and it was clear from his statements on both programmes that he had no clue what the underlying issue with the Khairpur device is, his only “research” on the topic being the a printout about hydrogen fuel cells from the website http://www.howstuffworks.com. I hope when in coming days this claim is found to be fraudulent, the PCSIR chairman will have the decency to resign from his post.
It was sad to see Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand display their lack of understanding of basic physics and history of scientific development on national TV channels.
To his credit, the only person on TV that seemed to know this elementary principle was Dr Attaur Rahman, a chemist and a former HEC chairman. Sadly, he was not able to hold back the tide of a nation desperate for any answer to its energy woes. However, Dr Attaur Rehman’s comments and his attempt to teach Agha Waqar Ahmad some basic physics were admirable.
Groundbreaking claims require a high level of proof. It is not clear why the producers of “Capital Talk” did not ask a team of scientists, well-versed in the area, to test the claims before presenting it to the world.
Contrary to the claims of minister for religious affais, Khursheed Shah (“Capital Talk”, July 30), no LUMS faculty member has seen or approved the Khairpur device. It is not surprising that ‘water as fuel’ claims appear every few weeks on national TV since such fraudulent claims are not properly vetted and the potential payoff is huge.
The water fraud will be exposed soon enough and, like a bad posterior smell, will go away. A simple experiment will make this happen faster. Here’s how: take an emergency electricity generator, of which there are thousands in Islamabad. Its engine is similar to that in a car. Remove the fuel tank and make sure the ‘water kit’ contains only water. Then ask the inventor to connect it up and run the generator.
But this episode raises bigger questions. Scientific frauds exist in other countries, but what explains their spectacular success in Pakistan? Answer: our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence. It is easy for them all to get away with this. As a nation, we have proven unwilling to do the hard work needed to learn to reason, to be sceptical, to demand proof, to understand even basic science. It is easier to believe the world is run by magic and conspiracies, to wish and wait for Aladin’s magic lamp. We live in the age of jahilliya.